Show of Hands have unequivocally become one of the leading forces in British folk. Steve Knightley and Phil Beer are respectively recognised as one of the UK’s best singer songwriters and one of its finest multi instrumentalists. Without frills or fanfares they have carved a unique niche built on a carefully constructed cottage industry and become one of the most in-demand bands on the circuit.
Their latest album The Long Way Home takes them back to their English roots, we spoke to Steve Knightley about it…
Something that struck me whilst listening to the new album is that you always seem to manage to catch the zeitgeist, whether it’s noticing the resurgance in Americana with State of the Union, or peoples anger at the establishment on Arrogance Ignorance and Greed, and with The long Way Home you’ve hit on a search for British roots. The first song, Breme Fell at Hastings being recorded for the BBC programme ‘The Great British Story’.
What I say when I perform this song live is ‘that with the coming referendum’ (which is about an earlier attempt to join Europe) everyone laughs at that, but I am sure that Nigel Farage will get hold of that, the other thing is that it ends in Mesopotamia, which is another up to the hour story.
Do you get concerned about writing songs that are so topical, so often they are mis-interpreted, or subverted so easily, such as the issues that culminated in Folk against fascism.
Isn’t it an odd time that we live in when you have to think about, maybe your welfare, when you write certain songs that criticises an aspect of a religion, it’s not like that bankers are going to come and track you down is it.
‘Mesopotamia’ is slightly more abstract than it might have been, I was toying with lyrics and some background sound effects which somebody might have said ‘you know what that is a call to prayer that you have in the background there, that is unacceptable’ then you are a soft target, it’s odd to have it at the back of your mind that you have to temper your creative instincts.
It is worrying, but I suppose anyone who is creatively observing what is going on will be affected by that. As an artist who compares and contrasts issues that are happening now with those that have happened in the past, you are going to be burdened with that as much as anyone, but it must help people to understand that this is not the first time this kind of thing has come about?
Well the thing about that song is, it’s using a trope, the female drummer boy… all of those are well known in the tradition and it’s not judgemental, it doesn’t say this was bad, it’s a song about love and loyalty, whether it’s false love or distorted loyalty, that’s the way it is.
The traditional songs you’ve chosen for this, did it take long to pull those into the feel you wanted for the album?
No, ‘Twas on one April’s morning’ John Jones and I did that for the Patrons set at Shrewsbury a few years ago, and Phil knew it from Tony Rose singing it when we were younger, and Phil’s skipper on his Cruise was Tony Rose’s son. That’s one of the reasons why the album feels so personal in a way. The other song ‘Virginia’ Phil found in an old book ‘Folk songs of the West’, it wasn’t known that before Australia, white slavery existed in the American colonies, it’s not a well know story that we sent our convicts out there, only for about 25 years or so but a definite penal servitude centre.
You do something interesting with Hambledon Fair where you mix lyrics ??
Yeah I relocated that one, I have always done it as Brimbledown or Derry Down, when I perform it live, I say ‘there is no such place as Brimbledown but I know Hambledon very well’ …it’s where we did our first ever village hall gig.
Did you find the tour of those village halls, with the ‘Grow your own gig’ trip, changed your outlook at all?
When you go into village halls night after night, it seems very natural, I would always start with an English Folk song unaccompanied, it just seemed that the place and the music had a kind of unity, so I dug out a lot more of that material for the repertoire of that set, we were looking at the songs that Show of Hands weren’t currently playing and the ones I had just learned. Also Chris Hoban had written a couple of songs on Centenary, he is an extraordinary songwriter, who can just write to order, you should hear the stuff we have not yet recorded! He’s the best unknown writer on the scene I have ever come across, he’s just written a lovely Cornish carol for Christmas that we are going to do, called the Star of the Sea, it could be Fishermans Friends straight off Port Isaac.
Does he perform or does he just write ??
He does perform a little bit locally, he’s an ex choral scholar, but now he’s working as a music teacher, but producing this amazing stuff. I wish I could pretend I had written it, but I can’t get away with it!
Do you find that each album takes you on a bit of a journey ?
I think you have to make it do that really, you have to give the audience a narrative, there are an awful lot of our friends, rivals and fellow headliners, who you could argue you couldn’t tell their first album from their third or their fifth, they do what they do extremely well, but it is a certain palette, a certain brush stroke and a certain sound technique. I think you have to take people on a journey about what you are doing as musicians and as people? However, with English music it does not have a built in narrative, if we said we were Irish musicians you would instinctively know what we were doing, we are looking for that narrative.
There is is a bit of a link there isn’t there, albeit tenuous, going back to the South West and Thomas Hardy and the way a lot of his stories were written as episodes for weekly publications rather than novels to begin with. Do you feel with each album you are creating a series of stories, articles or chapters that build up into a bigger connected picture?
That’s a nice thought, I have always been a Thomas Hardy fanatic, and it’s funny you should say that because I always say on Hambledon, when I introduce it, “you’ve got this Terence Stamp type character at the country fair and along comes pretty Nancy yet again” and the other thing I always say is “More Thomas Hardy than Thomas Waite” it changes the persona, so obviously if I am singing Hambledon Fair, It’s a different persona than if I am singing Wake the Union. I think this is a well realised album in a way, given that was the intention and I think we have pulled it off quite well, Country Life perhaps didn’t go the whole way, Wake The Union was, but people don’t always buy into concepts, they buy into a bunch of songs…
It’s a good point that ‘where does a narrative become a concept ?’
Yes we were going along the lines that Wake the Union was a conversation between the two elements and people would say ‘oh we just thought it was a load of songs?!’
Have you been tempted to do a Thomas Hardy homage in song that takes literal inspiration from his stories?
Interesting thought… I think what Ange Hardy has done with Coleridge is very ambitious, her conceptual stuff is top drawer.
I’d like to collaborate with someone like that, but maybe someone who’s not from the Folk genre, maybe a music, folk and words piece. With an actor or narrator maybe.
Its nice having Jackie Oates back on this one doing some vocals, I guess that is something that also stands out as being a well realised soundscape across the whole album, was that intentional as well?
Yes there’s more fiddle and a bit more ‘blokey’ harmony rather than the lovely Americana three part, Miranda is on a lot of the songs, but there is a lot where only Phil and I are harmonising, just two voices, but Jackie adds something, it’s hard to put your finger on it really, but with something like Hambledon Fair, you are actually there on the summer’s grass, she’s got this ability to sing straight off the field, Its very rare what she does, almost devoid of ego she doesn’t put herself out there, she just lets the tune do it and does it extraordinarily well!
…. and without being sentimental about it she manages to get that sense of sadness and bleakness that there can be in a lot of these songs.
I think you are right, it’s that Hardyesque heroism, Tess of the d’Urbervilles sort of thing, that is what it would have sounded like if Tess was singing them, she would have sounded like Jackie.
Do you find now you are working with Phil and Hannah that they gel with the way you work more?
They do! the great thing about Phil and Hannah is that they work together as one entity, they have an instinctive understanding for accompanying as a person, they need and use each others space. it’s quite a gift! In some ways it’s more more obvious on Wake the Union, but even with the little bits and pieces they did on this record, they just do ‘the one thing’ it’s an amazing thing really, they are quite special. When I did a solo tour with them, they are just brilliant accompanists, especially Phil, there is a zen like quality to him, he occupies the moment and where a lot of people would add a flourish he is able to add space. Hannah does the same, she will add a sort of low pause on the fiddle rather than an embellishment, it is just very cool what they do, and of course they are part of the landscape round here.
You recorded it at The Green Room with Mark Tucker.
He’s building it up now, he’s completely demolished the side of a hill and soon he’ll have a studio there which will be amazing. I think Mark is becoming the best producer/ engineer in this genre, particularly for getting the right sounds, he’s just got it, we’ve had a relationship now for about ten years and it’s getting stronger all the time for collaborations, he just knows how to do it.
That’s true and it’s a nice little studio too. So plans for the summer ? Big blast at the festivals ?
Yes we are doing a duo tour, Phil and I, to cement the theme of the album, Miranda is off touring with Rex to promote their album, so we are doing a duo tour just to nail that story, I am doing ‘All at Sea’ which is centred around maritime venues, so I am going to be recording all the maritime themed songs we are going to put on that one, then it’s as big a session as we can get. With every year, with less festival headliners it’s a difficult scene, and with Bellowhead off the scene it makes it tougher for festivals to feature top line English acts, who are still growing and developing and adding to the story.
And can do a headline slot.
Yes and can deliver … There are a lot of good bands coming out of the streets, like Skinny Lister, Coco and the Butterfields and Keston Cobblers, but they are not quite familiar enough with the folk landscape to be able to do that headline slot, they just don’t have the repertoire yet, I am sure it will happen, but it takes fifteen to twenty years to build a repertoire. So really it’s us left, Kate and um um …well hopefully Jon Boden is going to be doing something special …he’s bound to isn’t he…
When you put set lists together do you feel an obligation to your back catalogue?
What we have done on this tour (and in a way Trowbridge made us do this as they wanted to record the set live) we thought, ‘what is the last thing the audience want to hear live’ and that’s new songs! So we did the greatest hits, the ones that people have always listened to and that’s what we have been doing on this tour, we’ve been doing the first set a selection of about three quarters of the new album and in the second half we’ve said right ‘here you go, everything you actually came to see’ and that’s what we are going to do from now on I think. First set will always be a selection of the new material, unusual arrangements and the second half will be ..’OK let just have a festival now!’ and so now that that thinking has clarified, that is what we do, it’s quite a simple narrative again isn’t it ?
Do you ever get a sense of sadness when you record an album and you realise that some songs will never get a live airing?
Actually no , I think what we will do is make the first set all of those songs, that will be our challenge, we’ll do Evolution, we’ll do Mesopotamia, we’ll do all the ones from all the back catalogues that we have never played live and then the second half will be what they came to see so that’s the principle on how we are going to work now, we are going to be our own support act in a way! I’ll wear a white shirt and a jacket for the first half and change into a different one for the second.